Friday, May 9, 2014

Film Review: Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Some films manage to transcend such mundane things as story and narrative, and rise to a place of almost pure feeling. Jonathan Glazer's last film, Birth, starring Nicole Kidman, was a movie that did that, and now his latest film, Under the Skin, with Scarlet Johansson, takes that same transcendence, and figuratively flies with it. Now this is not to say that either of these films do not have a narrative to speak of, because they do, but it is just to say that they do more with their time on the screen, than a typical movie of their ilk would normally do. Of course, as I am sure anyone who has seen it will agree, Under the Skin does not really have all that many films of the same ilk. Starting off with some otherworldly (to use the obvious term) 2001 stuff, before delving into the melodic routine of its central character, Glazer imbues his film with a strangely calming sense of impending doom, all done with an equally otherworldly score by first time movie composer Mica Levi, that plays like Bernard Herrmann goes to Hell. In fact, it may very well be Levi's score, and not Johansson's performance, or even Glazer's direction, that steals each and every scene of the film, and manages to, er...under your skin. Yeah.

As far as that aforementioned narrative goes, Under Your Skin is a film about an alien predator, played by Johansson, who travels the streets of Glasgow, looking for men to lure back to her hiding place and entrap them in...well, let's just leave it at entrap them, and allow yourself the pleasure of watching these scenes unfold before your own eyes when you watch the film. It'll be worth it, trust me. Being Glazer's first film in a decade (and only his third overall), there was a lot of anticipatory angst dripping off of this critic, going into this film, and I've got to say that all this angst was for naught, because Under the Skin delivers, and then some. As I said earlier, Glazer's film transcends normal filmmaking, and enters a realm of pure energy, so to speak. A sort of gender-switched update of The Man Who Fell to Earth, while also being reminiscent of everything from Kubrick to Lynch to Hitchcock, and maybe even the arthouse cinema of Antonioni, Tarkovsky, and the Dardenne Brothers, Under the Skin is exactly what an art film should be. Haunting and ambiguous, Johansson's alien predator (a wolf in sexy sheep's clothing) is a monster hidden away in the mood of an art film, and she actually pulls it off with a surprising amount of subtle aplomb. Mainly known for her looks and not necessarily her acting prowess (though I don't think she deserves quite the amount of bad rapping that she gets from many fellow critics), Johansson uses what she's got here, to portray a lonely alien who begins to question what she is all about and what humanity is all about under their skin. It's a melancholy role, and this is something Johansson does best. Her best performances (The Man Who Wasn't There, Ghost World, Lost in Translation, Black Dahlia, Match Point) have all been in the clothes of daydreamers and listless lost girls, and that is how she plays it here as well.

But Glazer's film goes way beyond Johansson's performance (and even beyond Mica Levi's brilliantly subversive score) and into that aforementioned realm of pure mood. We are never truly given any reason as to why Johansson's unnamed alien (if she even is an alien - that is only alluded to and assumed) is doing what she is doing. Instead we are handed glimpses of bizarre ritualistic...well, again, let's just leave this to your imagination once you are sitting in front of the screen. And yes, as is always the case, but especially so here, one does need to see this on the big screen to truly appreciate the beauty of Glazer's film, all brought to visual life by commercial and music video cinematographer, Daniel Landin. With Birth (photographed by Harris Savides), Glazer gave us a story of a woman's dead husband come back to life in the form of a nine year old boy, and the whole thing plays like it is constantly on the edge between dream and nightmare. The same can be said of Under the Skin, all filmed using strange angles and mirrors galore, highlighting the dual imagery of the storyline with its double-vision cadence. Granted, Under the Skin never quite reaches the level of Birth (but any film would be hard pressed to do so), nor does Johansson ever reach the heights of Nicole Kidman here (Birth is probably the best singular performance by an actress known for giving incredible performance after incredible performance), but none of this stops Under the Skin from being one of the best films of its genre (whatever genre that may be) and an inevitable candidate for my year end top ten. And the finale of this film...well, I'll just let that one come as a surprise as well. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


  1. I haven't seen the movie, but your review gives a good account of what it's all about, and why it's worth watching. Made me curious to see it. AtoZer

  2. Another to put on my list to see. I like Scarlett Johansson and didn't know she is being slammed. I think it is because she does the over the top flicks also. I must see Birth and had forgotten about it. There are so many that I haven't seen. BTW-Thank you for your tip-much appreciated

  3. Thanx for stopping by. I used to write at least two film reviews a week, but now I only do maybe two or three a month, so it's fun to write one up now and then.

  4. I absolutely LOVE this film! The sexual questioning. The stalking and devouring. SCarJo's ass! Yeah, that's right. I'm a girl, but I can still like - and be jealous of - that ass. Seriously though, great psycho-thriller horror, sci-fi creature.